Why Your Firm Needs Skills—not Competencies—to Tackle the Cybersecurity Talent Gap

gettyimages-517343404-compressorThey’re hiring based upon predetermined “competencies” when they should be looking for skills that matter in the real world.

There’s no doubt that the overall situation remains unsettling: There are more than 1 million unfilled security jobs worldwide, according to research from Cisco. Four of five global IT decision-makers who are involved with cybersecurity admit that they’re dealing with a shortage of cybersecurity skills, and 53% say this shortage is worse than talent deficits in other IT professions, according to a recent Intel Security survey.

Roughly seven of 10 survey respondents indicate that this shortage has caused “direct and measurable damage,” including their emergence as a more desirable target among hackers (33%), the loss of proprietary data through cyberattacks (25%), reputational damage (22%) and a decreased ability to create new intellectual property for products and services (17%).

“Organizations should turn to cross-training to fill the gap.

As a result, organizations are scrambling to fill these positions. Unfortunately, they still rely upon an antiquated recruitment model. They connect with various traditional universities and certification institutions and look for candidates with degrees and/or “You passed!” coursework papers. After all, they figure, if someone spent years in a classroom to learn all about information security, then they must know how to protect networks from an adversary, right? Wrong.

Certifications and degrees are more about theory than actual practice. They cannot address the challenges faced by companies at a time when everyone from the building maintenance staff to C-level executives are targeted for attacks. We’re seeing plenty of candidates who have a long list of certifications on their resumes, but hardly understand how a network runs—much less how to defend it. A piece of paper cannot deliver the essential “right stuff” required of the modern cybersecurity professional—most importantly, the familiarity and instincts developed through crucial hands-on instruction.

Good enough for government work?
Interestingly enough, the government is a step or two ahead of private industry here. It has forecasted the skills demands, implemented training pipelines, formalized cybersecurity roles and deployed more collaborative information-sharing mechanisms across agencies intended to spread knowledge and response skills across the board when incidents occur.

Relatively few commercial companies can take advantage of such networks. In addition, many cannot toss vast sums of money into the pot to land the modern cybersecurity professional that I’ve described—especially when they don’t even have a team dedicated to network defense.

Turn to cross-training
That’s why these organizations should turn to cross-training to fill the gap. They can send in-house IT talent to an intense but effective program, at which they develop “must-have” core cybersecurity skills within five days, as opposed to five months. Your typical IT administrator is a good candidate for this level of cross-training. So are software quality assurance people—they’re naturally meticulous and observant, skills well-suited for reverse engineering and exploit jockeying.

By concentrating on cybersecurity skills development among existing employees, businesses can also avoid negative consequences of the “free agency” factor impacting security recruitment. The status quo of more companies cyclically paying ever-escalating salaries to bring in new talent, in part, fuels distracting turnover in the security ranks. To be most effective, security personnel need to be closely embedded and familiar with the operations and assets they are protecting and turnover only makes this harder to achieve. In contrast, a skilled security staffer trained within his or her existing enterprise becomes one less outsider to familiarize and will more quickly see areas to apply skills immediately.

Intensive security cross-training of IT staffers creates a much needed win-win situation: Employers gain more control over talent costs, with greater confidence that money invested in hands-on skills development will better meet the root objective of mitigating security risks. Employees, for their part, are rewarded with new empowerment acquiring the skills required to counter the sophisticated and aggressive cyber criminals of today. They’ll work harder to safeguard your systems than your adversaries will to exploit them. They’ll grow increasingly engaged, recognizing that they’re on the cutting edge of confronting perhaps the most perplexing problem which organizations have faced in the 21st Century.

And you’ll take comfort in knowing that you’re no longer hiring pieces of paper—you’re building a formidable cybersecurity team.

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Nathan Swaim
Nathan Swaim is President of ANRC LLC in San Antonio, Texas. He has more than 15 years of experience in the cybersecurity field spanning intrusion and malware analysis and security skills development.

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